Palmyra. The cultural icon of South India. The unparalleled pride of the indigenous people. The sacred symbol of eerie power. Abruptly popping up in the middle of nowhere, this popular tree looks like erect phalluses, installed all over the southern peninsula. In the almost barren Palai landscape (the former Mullai and Marutham lands) of Pukar, there are several groves of Palmyra trees that are at times beautifully arrayed along the narrow streets. Due to its vertically growing roots that can retain water, they also stand as markers/borders surrounding freshwater bodies – an effective rain water management system devised long ago.
And there are loners such as the one in this image. Considered as the abode of yakshis1, children/youngster are usually scared to go past a lone palymra, especially after mid-night. The yakshi is said to lure the young lovers, and leave behind only their nails and hair. In this photograph, this magical tree looks all the more ominous, and the melodramatic dark clouds looming over it add to the mystery of this forlorn tree.
The Palmyra is attributed with 801 uses2. A vast majority of Sangam literature, including Silappathikaram were originally written on cured palm leaf sheets. For long, palm leaves were used to construct thatched roofs. Owing to its strength and longevity, its trunks were used as beams until the 80s. Their edible uses are multiple. The bitter-sweet taste of the Nongu (the fruit) that clings to the trunk menacingly, the scattered fibrous bright yellow colored pulps, the tubular sprouts and the crunchy kernel creates a sense of nostalgia. Neera (padaneer), the palm nectar extracted from its inflorescence is a healthy drink, which when fermented becomes the unmatchable toddy (country beer) – a delicacy enjoyed by both men, women and children.
The earliest proof of an alcoholic beverage dates back to China 9,000 years ago. It is possible that the ancient humans observed the animals that were intoxicated by the naturally fermented nectar in flowers and developed the technique of controlled fermentation. Since then, various types of intoxicating drinks have been made of rice, grapes, honey etc. This must have paved the way for toddy tapping and in ancient Tamilakam, local accounts claim that toddy tapping was done as early as 5500 BCE and people belonging to each of the landscapes made their own indigenous drinks, using the produce that was available in abundance for them.
References to toddy have been found aplenty in Sangam literature including Silappathikaram. The king, who provides toddy in abundance, is praised by the poets for his generosity and wealth. Often the warriors, before a fight, or the Maravars3, after robbing off the enemy settlements, were given toddy as a treat. The Cera king Cenguttuvan’s MuchiRi is praised as a place where toddy flowed like water/river that he generously shared with his people. Toddy also occupied a central position in many early paintings, sculptures, engravings on temple premises, which points to its prominence in the lifestyle of ancient Tamils. They were well aware of the health benefits of toddy (and neera) which is rich with minerals, vitamins, nutrients and played a crucial role in healing and medication. During early days, in some native temples, it was even given as prasatham4, along with fish/meat, to the worshippers.
The women of Sangam-era – apart from enjoying a regular dose of toddy, especially during their pregnancy or lactation period – played a major role in selling it. They often exchanged toddy with fish, rice, salt and other such essentials by bartering them. While the scented ones made of flowers like Mahua (local name: Iluppai) and rice were preferred by the kings and the wealthy traders, the workers consumed toddy made from coconut or palm. In the later periods, wines from Rome were imported for the kings. Often, ritualistic celebrations accompanied the ceremonial drinking gatherings.
This lone palmyra tree is laden with fruits. Upon taking a closer look, one could also see the seeds scattered around beneath it, with a few already sprouting. It appears that it hasn’t been harvested in a long time. That invites a question – “why?”. If there had been a toddy tapper around, this would surely not be the case.
In South India, coconut palm and palmya tapping was practiced by the indigenous population who, later during the process of class/caste consolidation, were called the Shanars (Channars). These early settlers considered Palmyra as the single most miraculous tree and were the largest consumers of its products. Scaling a Palmyra, which can grow up to 100 feet, is a rather specialized job done by the men. Garnering the agility and balance required to scale the tree would take years. Through generations of knowledge sharing, they had developed distinct lifestyle practices, which over the period became symbols of their community. They had their own rituals, practices and folk art forms. Their chief deity was Madan, whose origins are traced to a warrior ruler from their own community. In later days, worship of Murugan – the personification of Tamil language and a protector of people with large army – was also found. Animal/human sacrifices that include offering toddy to their deities were chief among their rituals.
The beginning of the decline of traditional practices could be attributed to the emergence of philosophies and ideas of foreign origin. The Buddha was against intoxication; and later, abstinence from alcohol was promoted as a moral value by Jainism. During the Bhakti revival movement, the non-vedic, agamic local deities including Murugan were appropriated into Vedic Hinduism and these fundamentally Buddhist believers were left in a conundrum. Even though the changing philosophies of the ruling dynasties had a direct effect, there was another important aspect leading to the decline in tapping – a sort of de-possession by the very people who once did it with pride. A few hundred years before colonization, the three ruling dynasties started losing their stronghold and became scattered. The invading rulers as well as the decentralized powers called Nayaks, socially ostracized the resisting chieftains and their people who were opposing the new powers and classified them as Sudras – the untouchables and forced these war criminals/victims to do menial jobs. The Shanars, who were chieftains/citizens of Pandyan dynasty – saw their direct lineage come to be classified as ‘untouchables’ and much worse ‘unseeables’. Consequently, neera/toddy tapping was looked down upon as a lowly profession.
The colonial rulers re-emphasized this invented Vedic concept of “impure by birth”, “lesser human” to create societal divisions, which was conducive to their ‘divide and rule’ policy. However, the British rule brought new opportunities that the Shanars, people with high business acumen, took advantage of. In the beginning of 19th century, the different sub sects including the wealthy Shanars (the ones who were the owners of the vast palmyra groves) joined together to form the broader group called Nadars (meaning the one who rules the land), shunning the term Shanars. They stood together as a close knit and inter caste marriages were prohibited and ostracized – even though it is allowed between its two religions factions – Hindu and Christian Nadars5. Slowly and steadily with systematic collective effort, they started climbing the caste hierarchy, changed a lot of their ritualistic practices, and became influential in the educational and political arena6. Their approach of not fighting against the oppressive caste system yet challenging its very structure – by changing their intrinsic characteristics and re-identifying with their original ancestry – enabled them to carve a much higher status for themselves.
During this process of revivalism, one of the first steps taken by the leaders of the Nadar Mahajana Sangam was to abandon their age old tapping practice that included not only toddy but also the non-alcoholic neera. A majority of their cultivation and food practices that includes Palmyra products were negated. Jaggery production continued, but it was not a lucrative one, as by then the British had started importing and promoting white sugar. At this point, the imperial rulers started monopolizing liquor and imposed tax on toddy tapping, which further discouraged the remaining indigenous tappers. In the year 1937, with the efforts of the Nadar Mahajana Sangam, coupled with Gandhi’s propaganda against alcoholism, the ban on toddy/neera tapping was imposed for the first time by Chief Minister Rajagopalachari in Salem region, which by the year 1948 expanded to include the entire erstwhile Madras providence.
The independent India saw the continuation of many colonial policies/rules/practices and ban on toddy/neera tapping was one such that continues till now, despite a temporary relapse between 1971 and 1987. This was, however, restricted to present Tamil Nadu territory where Nadars are a dominant majority, whereas the neighboring states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra and Union territory Puducherry continue to allow tapping till now7.
While the wealthy landlords had left tapping completely and doing other mainstream jobs, a majority of the working-class tappers, who are dedicated to their profession or those who are yet to climb up the economic ladder, still have a hard time letting go of their traditional profession. Even though the Christian Nadars remained more open to tapping, the majority of Hindu Nadars continue to stand against it. By now, they have imbibed the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma as their own. The remaining tappers, now segregated as Panayeri Nadars, have been asking for the ban to be lifted. Yet, their feeble voices are resisted by the people of their own community, and with the lack of a collective strength there hasn’t been any state wide agitation or request to lift the ban. In Pukar, there are not many Nadar settlements. Until recently, despite the ban, a few from the Nadar belt regions (from the Thamirabarani River belt regions) would visit every year during the season and illegally tap the trees for toddy/neera. Over the last couple of years, with increased restrictions, they have dropped it altogether.
The men of Pukar – fishermen, farmers, and the other labourers – make it a habit to drink every day. But with the non-availability of toddy, they opt for the cheapest alcohol sold by the State owned beverage outlets (TASMAC). They gulp down the distilled, artificially flavoured chemical – usually sitting in small groups alongside the roads, near a heap of several months old garbage (often broken bottles, 2 rupee water packets, leftover food and plastic cups thrown by them over the previous days) – getting criticized and humiliated for a habit that originated as a celebration, but has spun out into being considered as “evil behaviour” over the years, albeit with its own justifications. While the middle and upper middle class consider consumption of alcohol as an integral part of socializing, the working class people see it as their energy drink – a necessity after a hard day’s labour. None of the philosophical propaganda and revival efforts has led to the reduction of alcohol consumption. On the contrary, every year, the consumption rate is increasing by 8%. Nevertheless, the rural women folk have abstained from drinking and have become strong spokespersons against alcoholism. But, in all probability an intoxication-free lifestyle can never become a reality.
Today, youngsters from neither the Nadar community nor from any other community are expressing interest to tap toddy and/or neera. Here, the class hegemony works in reverse as well – at this transition stage, the Nadars would not allow people from other communities to engage in tapping. The reason for caste hegemony to continue to have deep rooted impact in contemporary society is mainly because it has made people believe that they are somewhat “higher” or “lower” and the works they do are “pure” or “impure”. The social reform movements haven’t been successful in setting people free from these ‘imposed’ superiority/inferiority consciousness. Only time will tell whether these ‘unwanted’ palm trees will be felled or would there be another cultural revivalism that would delineate professions from particular higher/lower castes and alter people’s perception of what is healthy, pure and sacred. Either way, as of now, this lone palm tree – becomes a representation of the “missing” toddy/neera tapper, not as a symbol of pride, but of a scarred past.